Although leaning towards more wild and rugged places, I’m usually excited about visiting both remote locations and the more iconic tourist destinations. Joshua Tree National Park has it all; this pristine high-desert wilderness is also one of the most energetic locations on the planet.
To paraphrase Minor White, when looking at the landscapes within the Joshua Tree National Park, I see them not only for what they are, but also for what else they are.
They are pure magic.
Earth is bursting with a special energy there. For some, it will manifest as a happy feeling, for others – a sense of mystery or even awe, as in a heightened state of being. It’s a sacred land, and it will magnify whatever we bring. For a deserted place, it may be crowded with hikers and visitors sightseeing from their cars, yet it’s still spacious enough to make us feel lost in a wilderness. Conducive to those seeking seclusion or a transformational journey, a touch of ruggedness in the beauty of nature, a scenic landscape from a popular travel destination, or a test in difficult conditions, this park - where two different desert ecosystems, the Mojave and the Colorado, come together - is also worth visiting if you want to find out what does it mean to survive despite all odds. Although we are not speaking about your survival.
Joshua Tree Park is a habitat for many species: juniper, pine, and cacti, raven, woodpecker, rabbit, fox, snake, and rat… I read somewhere that you can find over 700 species of various plants in the park (hence the original proposed name "Desert Plant National Park") as well as 55 species of mammal and over 250 species of bird.
Yet when it comes to park’s magic, nothing compares to a Joshua trees. They’re one of the most iconic plants of the American Southwest. To many, they’re a symbol of the Mojave Desert. Their wide branches and soft wood provide important shelter for a variety of desert animals. Called grotesque and ugly by the first American settlers, they emanate extraordinary vitality and have something so playful, smart, and serene about them that it completely changes the nature of this desert land.
After a few days on the Mojave Desert we arrive at the gates of Joshua Tree National Park (only three hours from the Pacific), and a feeling of emptiness and desolation is starting to take hold of us, when these unique trees and gracefully rounded gigantic rocks come into the scene. As soon as we pass Twentynine Palms, the landscape feels more comforting and warm, and we feel energized.
We start our exploration by simply responding to a call from the Joshua tree – just randomly park on the side of the road and go for a long walk amongst the rocks and the vividly "gesticulating" trees. At some point, I notice a blue bird, its intense plumage contrasting with the background of yellow-brown sands and rocks. I snap a photo and the bird starts playing with photographer: flying away after each click and perching in a new seat. It looks at me with curiosity and encouragement. I do not spoil the fun and run after him every time. Along the way, I notice a sign about different forms of desert life, including little blue birds (Mountain Bluebird) - all depending on Joshua tree (the Tree of Life) for survival.
When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe. One fancies a heart like our own must be beating in every crystal and cell, and we feel like stopping to speak to the plants and animals as friendly fellow mountaineers. Nature as a poet, an enthusiastic workingman, becomes more and more visible the farther and higher we go; for the mountains are fountains - beginning places, however related to sources beyond mortal ken. ~ John Muir
Joshua trees - in turn - depend on our human instinct of connection with nature and respect for all its forms. Because they unfortunately are one of thousands of endangered species. Wildfire, drought, and a noticeable rise in annual mean temperature do not help, and it’s quite possible that in the year 2100 Joshua trees will completely disappear from the surface of Earth. What will happen to the blue bird, to a desert mouse, and mountain goat then? We are all connected by invisible threads, everything in the Universe, as John Muir said, is tied to everything else, so something will then happen to us, too.
The desert blue bird disappears as suddenly as it appeared, but stays with me on a few photos that prove I did not dream it. Maybe it had something to do with the elusive blue bird of happiness… Life is sweet, tender and complete, when you find the bluebird of happiness. Maybe it came to teach me about our human happiness being dependent on the survival of the world of trees.
Our second stop has stunning panoramas and a horizon of mountains surrounding a field of 3-4 meters tall Cholla cactus. We are at the border of two deserts; spread around in majesty, the garden of succulents grew here naturally. "Jumping" cacti (also affectionately called “Teddy bear”) look beautiful, but it’s a treacherous beauty. It’s an earned nickname from its legendary grip. "Plush" and innocent in appearance, Chollas have millions of sharp needles (so thick they look like fur) that literally "jump" on those who pass too close - together with a piece of cactus that detaches from the trunk along with the needles that stick to the object and immediately dug into the skin and clothes. It’s very difficult to get rid of a Cholla ball bristling with needles (we learned that the hard way from my husband’s trekking shoe). The needles stick into an object, swell, and absorb water, which means that pulling them out requires a lot of force and often causes pain. Many climbers report finding Cholla needles on their clothes only after returning from a hike.
A detached piece of cactus, landing on the ground, takes root, and grows as a clone of the original trunk. Interestingly, Cholla cacti retain huge amounts of water. Some animals, such as mountain desert chamois and rams, have learned to handle needles to get to the succulent cactus trunk. Their horns help a thirsty animal remove the needle and eat a tasty and nutritious meal. The Sonoran Desert can go months without rain, so every drop of liquid here is worth its weight in gold. Back to the trail: it’s spectacular, but be careful.
A few more stops and climbs that are ecstatic, now at the end of this eventful day, we arrive at the last itinerary trail, through a Hidden Valley. Before us stands a portal of giant granite monoliths, which loop around huge rock formations, and the Barker Dam. Barker dam is a partly a human creation - the achievement of Bill Keys the "Edison of the Mojave Desert", who strengthened and extended the natural rock barrier to stop winter’s rainwater (creating an amazing lake in the middle of a dry desert). Although the water level during our visit is not high, the desert pool surrounded by huge rocks is impressive.
There are five water oases in Joshua Tree National Park, and water plays an important part in the park’s history: millions of years ago it carved its landscapes (and proved to be an artist). The area of today's park - formerly part of the now non-existent continent called Rodinia - was under ocean’s surface for 250 million years.
Water in the desert is not only a symbol of life - it is life, it ensures survival. Longing for it (metaphorically taken as longing for life and knowledge about the source of life) is an inseparable element of every desert’s story.
As we reach the "stone circle" on the Barker Dam trail, the daylight fades to pink, and the first stars ignite. This rocky Wonderland entertained us with huge bright boulders, rock doors, gates, and breaks, and unexpected panoramas dotted with Joshua trees and cacti, a glistening lake, even a strange mandrola-spiral rock (the origin and purpose has not been revealed in my research).
Standing in silence in a sacred circle of Joshua trees surrounded by a circle of rocks, we contemplate the drawings in a shallow cave - shadowy, yet still too clear for their age. The original message - in the form of petroglyphs - was colored by the producers of a Disney film in 1961 (today we call it vandalism), but perhaps if we stand here long enough in the gathering dusk, its meaning will reach us? These petroglyphs date back more than 2,000 years. If we, as fair representatives of our great civilization, were not so completely blind and deaf, they would surely have something important to tell us... for example, as the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh puts it, that in the past we ourselves were there as a cloud, water, boulder, air. It is not a belief in reincarnation - it is the story of life on Earth.
We leave the park after dark, rocks illuminated for a moment by headlights. A drive through the sea of Mojave’s darkness feels adventurous. Joshua trees stretch out their arms to the coal black sky, and there is an entire field of Joshua trees - as in the vision of Mormons – right in front of us. Praying prophets. Maybe they are praying for us.
Driving through deserted roads at night, if not for the car's engine, it would be deafeningly quiet. We glide through the dark silence on high beam, wishing to know what’s around us, what awaits us, what lies ahead. Darkness does not have the best connotations in our culture (although without the alternating cycle of night and day nothing on the planet would survive), nor does the desert; they are considered dangerous, unfriendly, treacherous. It is easy to feel lost in the dark. One can even start to feel that it is over - the world, as we know it; one can almost see “no future” sign. Some say, we are living in the Dark Age. Yet who knows, maybe we have not been buried as a civilization yet; maybe... we have been planted?
APPENDIX: A FEW NOTES ON JOSHUA TREES (AND THE UNIVERSE)
What if we loved ourselves so much we wouldn’t feel we need to gain anything (ex. more love, sympathy, appreciation, friends, better job or car) in order to feel complete and lovable, and deeply satisfied?
What if one day we would wake up feeling completely peaceful, joyful, loving, and content (and bursting with energy and life)?
Maybe we would take a leisurely walk outside and truly notice everything is connected and we live in a world filled with wonders. Maybe we would take a good care for whatever is in front of us, maybe we would appreciate our interdependence.
We hear this phrase “Love yourself” yet falling in love with ourselves feels like a hyper-egoistic thing, impossibility, or naiveté, a slogan from a self-help book. What is this self we are supposed to love, and how do we know it?
A doorway leads to an experience of a desert. Where another voice will make itself known, and I don’t have to struggle to sound like anything in particular as this is not about my voice – which guides you only to this doorway. What is behind? Bright, intense desert light. Cheerful Joshua trees in their trance, their prayer, their dialogue with this rough terrain and everything else in the Universe. Inviting you to join more consciously this dance of creation and survival.
I speak for Joshua tree (and a little blue bird that depends on its branches). I know the distance from one desert to another, and the underground current that connects all of Joshua trees of the Mojave Desert, in spite of great distances. There is a current that flows through our roots and branches, and little wings of a blue bird, and his perfectly round and shiny eye; the current that moves his wings and beats his heart. It flows through our trunks, roots, to the ground.
And then it flies back to heaven on these blue wings, with a winter song asking how long will I sleep, and will I be there when grandchildren of the bluebird will want to rest in branches of a desert tree.
Don’t ask me.
Desert wind wraps its arms around us… as we walk among rocks and cacti, and Joshua trees; they nod with approval to this brief air hug.
A shell of language cracks opens and the space inside is silent, translucent, and light.
In this short window between one thought and another – so much life.
Following the path of a breath, the path of a heart, I reach the edge of a cliff and look down at the strange plant, rocky spiral or mandrola, and a distant mountains dotted by Joshua Trees like a panther’s skin… I feel this landscape is looking at me. I want to know what it sees.
Do not go off somewhere else – stay there. Traveler inside the body - like in a vehicle that transports you with your feet on the ground. Strong, firm moves, from one boulder to another. I see the horizon fogged by a hazy air, with dots of Joshua Trees, hundreds of them, in the distance. Do not go off somewhere else – stay on this rock. Sense your feet and stand there knowing that you stand on Earth, take it in and allow yourself to be taken in until you become a part of it. Your ground being a globe moving through space, spinning at the incredible speed. Sense the gravity. Maybe you will hear your name – whispered through the wind; maybe by your own consciousness, you are surrounded by it: there is no place to go and there is nowhere else.
I am offering this beauty to you, as I know we all want our globe to turn without any disturbance. Alive, with all the beings on it living happily and aware of a sacred thread we may remember from our childhood days – that binds us together. Joshua trees, hikers in their flashy jackets, knocking to the stone’s door in search of their home or a treasure hidden in the sesame of their own heart, rock, blue bird, cacti, creosote bush… things normally kept apart. Distant fields many miles away from the desert… your parents, dead or alive, my parents, our grand- and great-grandparents, our earthly ancestors, and their great-grandchild… the ocean that has been there on this desert before we all came… the ocean that will come.
I never underestimate